Clinton sets dispute deadline : BASEBALL

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Major League players and owners began a third successive day of talks yesterday under growing pressure from President Clinton to settle their six-month strike by Monday or face government intervention.

Clinton has said if the agreement is not reached by Monday he may ask the mediator William Usery to recommend a settlement which could then be imposed by Congress. Usery, a former labour secretary, briefed administration officials about the situation on Thursday.

Spring training camps are scheduled to open in Florida and Arizona in a few days' time, and the 1995 season is due to begin in early April. The teams have threatened to field replacement players if the strike is not settled and have been holding trials for anyone with some playing experience.

The players walked out last August over plans to impose a salary cap to hold down rising contracts. The owners responded by cancelling the rest of the season, including the World Series, in September.

Donald Fehr, the chief negotiator for the players, said he had cancelled a meeting with managers and coaches on Monday in Dallas so he could remain in Washington for the negotiations, which are expected to continue through the weekend.

The players have said they will oppose any plan by the owners to limit their salaries. The owners say some controls are needed to help teams in smaller cities compete with those in bigger markets. Bills have been introduced in Congress to end baseball's exemption from federal antitrust laws, but it is not certain if the Republican-controlled Congress would be willing to intervene in the dispute.

Meanwhile, the sport is heading to southern Europe in the form of a new professional women's league founded by the owners of the Silver Bullets women's team in the United States.

"We are using this league to provide first-rate baseball to European sports fans," Robert Hope, the league chairman, said. "It just happens that the players will be women."

The Mediterranean Baseball League - with two teams each in Spain, France and Italy - will be made up of the best players from more than 2,500 prospects who tried out for the Silver Bullets team in the past year.

The league was announced on Thursday by Hope-Beckham Inc, an Atlanta marketing firm that owns the Silver Bullets and will operate the new league.

"The people in Europe love sports and love anything that is American," said Joe Bailey, who ran the World League of American Football when it started in 1989 and will head operations for the new baseball league. "This league will be a big hit."

Selections for teams have yet to be finalised, but likely clubs are Valencia and Barcelona in Spain, Montpellier and Nice in France, and Florence and Parma in Italy. Barcelona, Florence and Parma have modern baseball stadiums, and the other three would use converted football stadiums.

Each team will have 20 players, including five from the host country, and will be managed by American coaches, Hope-Beckham said.

The 80-game season will run from mid-June until August. Spring training will start on 5 May at Fort Myers, Florida. After teams are selected, they will go to Europe on 1 June for the final two weeks of training.